In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 23, Naa Oyo A. Kwate asks what a 1981 picture of a derelict McDonald’s franchise in Compton, California, can tell us about the broader history of racialised deindustrialisation.
Compton, California, a town whose name almost immediately elicits “Straight Outta,” was a postwar suburban haven for blue-collar Black households who worked in a thriving industrial corridor. They enjoyed recently built, spacious homes, and they maintained them fastidiously. It was a hard-won achievement, as the White residents who preceded them reacted to new Black neighbours with pickets, violence, and eventually panic selling. Then came industrial flight—manufacturers of furniture, textiles, automobiles, tires, steel, and more—beginning in the early 1960s and continuing to the early 1980s. Some 70,000 jobs evaporated between 1978 and 1982 alone. The economic, social, and physical shocks to Compton residents and the city’s infrastructure were severe.
This photograph, taken by John Margolies in 1981, portrays the calamity that Compton’s economic inversion left in its wake—the kind of commercial decline caused by the downstream effects of racial segregation. Places like Compton are stereotyped with the racial shorthand of a “bad neighbourhood,” an analysis (or lack thereof) that ignores how and why Black communities are disproportionately saddled with suffering. Still, it’s not entirely clear what happened to this particular apparently defunct restaurant. When did it close and what has been the impact on the community? On the one hand, a shuttered order window, posters, graffiti, and an empty lot devoid of any evidence of recent or frequent customers are clear markers that this former McDonald’s outlet has been closed for some time. That it remains as relic suggests that neither public nor private investment is forthcoming. On the other hand, the plantings, oddly evocative of a wreath against the red backdrop, give observers perhaps vain hope that there might still be life in the establishment, that a crew might still return to the kitchen to serve up the menu items advertised on the facade. Then again, maybe they are just very hardy plants.
 Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present (Berkeley, CA 2003: University of California Press).
Naa Oyo A. Kwate
Naa Oyo A. Kwate, Ph.D. is Associate Professor at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, jointly appointed in the Department of Africana Studies and the Department of Human Ecology. A psychologist by training, she is an interdisciplinary social scientist with wide ranging interests in racial inequality and African American health. She is the author of the short work, Burgers in Blackface: Anti-Black Restaurants Then and Now, published by the University of Minnesota Press; editor of the forthcoming (May 2021) The Street: A Photographic Field Guide to American Inequality, published by Rutgers University Press; and of a book in progress under contract with the University of Minnesota Press, Paint it Black: Race and the Transformation of Fast Food in America.